3/2/2015 8:00 AM

How Employee Firing Cost Employers Big

If you're thinking about terminating an employee who's been giving you grief about workplace safety, you might want to reconsider.  That was the lesson learned by an Arizona trucking company.

One of their drivers was asked to go out with another driver who smoked.  He found cigarette butts in the co-driver's truck. The problem:  The cargo was explosive!

The driver refused to make the run.  According to HAZMAT regulations, smoking while hauling explosives was a violation.  In its wisdom, the company sent him home, and then fired the employee two days later.

Not Smart.

Subsequently, the employee complained to the Dept of Labor, which ordered the company to pay more than $200,000 in back wages, $15,000 in interest, and a punitive fine of $20,000. That's a lot more expensive than finding a non-smoker to make the trip.

In addition, OSHA directed the company to post information on workers' right to raise workplace safety concerns without having to fear retaliation on the part of their employer.

This company specialized in hauling explosives for the military.  So it's not a stretch to conclude that they should have known about the regulation forbidding smoking on explosive hauls.

Here’s another case involving a trucking company: A driver for a company in IL, informed his central office about a potential brake problem on the truck.  Management told him to take the truck to a mechanic to have it checked out.  Later, dispatch instructed the driver to pick up another load.  The driver refused, stating that he was already over the number of work hours allowed by law.

Foolishly, the company terminated him the next day - for not following the illegal instructions of the dispatch office.

Again, the driver complained to OSHA, which investigated, and found the company liable.  They directed them to rehire the driver, and pay him over $190,000 in back wages, citing the anti-whistle blower provisions of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act.

Lessons Learned

The take away here is that obviously you should not fire an employee on the sole basis of whistle-blowing.  If an employee complains to OSHA or goes to court, the whistle-blower always receives the benefit of the doubt.  The burden of proof will fall on the employer, in most cases, to demonstrate that the firing had nothing to do with whistle-blowing.

Documenting any action becomes very important.  If you don’t maintain records of rules violations or infractions, than you are likely to have a difficult battle in court. 


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